July 15, 2010


Poor Girl Gourmet: Eat in Style on a Bare-Bones Budget. By Amy McCoy. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

Eating Local: The Cookbook Inspired by America’s Farmers. By Sur la Table with Janet Fletcher. Andrews McMeel. $35.

     These books represent two sides of the same personalized-eating coin, but are aimed at completely different – even diametrically opposed – readerships. Poor Girl Gourmet is all about down-home, down-to-earth, budget-conscious “food is fuel” cooking, but with style. Starting from the premise that the recent recession hurt a lot of people – and that economic reverses can hit anyone, anytime – Amy McCoy shows how to make interesting and delicious dishes that feed groups of people very inexpensively, even if you buy items when they are not on sale. Every recipe opens with pricing: “Butternut Squash Ravioli in a Maple-Cream Sauce: Serves 6 to 8, $10.00 to $15.00.” Each one ends with a complete cost breakdown: “Ginger Soy Sirloin Tip Stir-Fry with Mushrooms…Estimated cost for four: $14.58. The sirloin tips cost $7.99 per pound. The total ginger used in this dish will cost you around 12¢. …The garlic for the entire dish is 10¢, and the crushed red pepper total is 6¢.” And McCoy is careful to err on the side of caution when estimating prices: “The pasta was $1.99 for a 1-pound box. You and I both know that you can find pasta on sale for half that price, but as we don’t want anyone to be disappointed with their own personal final tally, we’ll use that larger figure for our purposes here.” This extraordinary cost focus might make you think McCoy is offering dull, bare-bones recipes, but exactly the opposite is the case. She shows how to make homemade egg pasta (she calls it “house-made”) that serves six to eight people for $5 or less; cinnamon roasted chicken with orange-cinnamon sauce that serves four to six for $10 or less; sweet Italian sausage with apple and fennel seed that serves four for $5 to $10; polenta that serves four for less than $5; a 10-to-12-slice loaf of oatmeal-wheat beer bread for an estimated $2.26; apple crumble with dried cranberries that serves six to eight for just over $8; and many more recipes that sound, taste and even look delicious (the book is packed with photos). McCoy’s point is that there is no shame in economizing, and no need to eat unhealthful food. Yes, she does suggest some dietary changes in the name of cost control, but they tend to be ones that doctors recommend as being good for your health: “Part of eating for less involves eating meat less frequently or in smaller quantities.” And yes, she does include penny-pinching hints that go beyond the recipes themselves: “Waste Not the Wrapper: I save wrappers from sticks of unsalted butter in the refrigerator for greasing pans.” But there is nothing here that says you must do this or that in order to eat both well and frugally – you can pick and choose among the suggestions as well as among the recipes, selecting what works for you and skipping what does not. Poor Girl Gourmet is a book that really lives up to its title, even if “poor” is a bit of an exaggeration. It is an unpretentious cookbook that really does show how to save money, eat well, cook delicious (even gourmet) meals, and feel good about the whole process even if your budget is stretched to the breaking point.

     Eating Local is for a very different audience. This is a handsome hardcover book filled with beautiful photographs by Sara Remington and designed for well-to-do, environmentally conscious consumers who proudly proclaim themselves part of the “locavore” movement (which is not something out of a horror movie and does not mean eating steam engines, but refers to eating as much locally produced food as possible). The antithesis of Amy McCoy’s plainspoken financial orientation is this “culinary trendsetter” cookbook created by a 75-store gourmet-cooking chain with journalist Janet Fletcher, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Although the book calls itself “Inspired by America’s Farmers,” there is nothing down and dirty about anything in it – not a lot of pitchforking manure, baling hay or getting up before dawn to milk the cows for this readership. Instead, the book pays visits to 10 small farmers who specialize in vegetables (five examples), fruits (three), and poultry, meat and eggs (two). Typical of the group is Dancing Roots Farm in Troutdale, Oregon, run by Shari Sirkin and Bryan Dickerson. “It was Shari who wanted to farm. After years of trying and rejecting careers – as a legislative aide, a school teacher, a community organizer, and, ironically, a career coach – Shari had finally found work that engaged her.” So there is a pronounced self-actualization undertone to Eating Local, a sense of good people doing good things for themselves, their communities and the planet. It is all too easy to parody this approach, and indeed, its over-earnestness and sense of self-indulgence and entitlement make parody easy. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the “eating local” movement out of hand (although the word “locavore” does deserve a titter or two). Buying produce grown close to home is a good way to put yourself in touch with seasonal variations in the area where you live, help you plan meals based on what is in season at any given time, and introduce you to items you may not have used in meals before – all while allowing you to buy produce picked when it is ready (not picked early so it can be shipped long distances) as you spend your money supporting local farmers instead of spending it to have items trucked or flown in from distant areas. The local-eating approach is not cheap – do not look to Eating Local for any budgetary discussions whatsoever – and is something of a feel-good movement rife with self-importance. But that does not mean the recipes cannot be delicious. They are arranged in this book alphabetically by primary ingredient – asparagus comes before celery root, which comes before leeks, which come before parsnips, and so on. There is a distinct nouvelle cuisine flair to a lot of the recipes: “Stir-Fried Bok Choy with Shrimp and Oyster Sauce,” “Farro Risotto with Jerusalem Artichokes,” “Glazed Cippoline Onions with Saffron and Sherry Vinegar,” “Shaved Watermelon Radishes, Watercress, and Fennel,” and so on. If this type of food appeals to you, and if you have both the money and the time to be part of the “eating local” movement, you will find much to enjoy in Eating Local. Because of its narrow target readership and high price, the book gets a (+++) rating – most of that for some really delicious recipes, such as Peach and Boysenberry Cobbler. But Eating Local is not a book for everyone, and does not intend to be. It is more of a manual for a fairly exclusive club of like-minded food lovers.

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